About Philosophy, War and Conflicts
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About Philosophy, War and Conflicts
From the dawn of human consciousness to the mid-20th century, humans have had to grapple with the reality of individual mortality. Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity now faces the possibility of its extinction as a biological species. This quote from writer Arthur Koestler is particularly relevant in today’s world and wars.
In Japan, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial remains a stark reminder of the atomic warfare that occurred on August 6 and 9, 1945. The question now is whether those with nuclear weapons will be moved to never press the red button, in order to preserve humanity in all its diversity.
Given the nuclear threat at Europe’s doorstep, the West is unlikely to confront Russia directly in Ukraine. However, should the conflict escalate, the international hawks who profit from the war economy – temporarily paused since the mass withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan – will raise new questions about the world order. What will be the future of capitalism post-Ukraine? How do we end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ? How will free trade evolve with China and India refusing to condemn Russia? In other words, can the post-Soviet world order, dominated by the United States, remain stable? Will it face challenges and tensions that could lead to major conflicts? Or will the global economy, with China’s growing influence, become a permanent battlefield, where small island economies vulnerable to climate change are marginalized?
In the meantime, the backdrop is already complicated by international inflation, with levels not seen in decades. Like war, many thought it would never happen, believing that in a globalized economy, inflation could not soar in such a way. Yet, it has! Beyond the circumstantial factors such as the pandemic and the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza, structural factors must also be considered, such as the exorbitant cost of the energy transition (hence the reliance on fossil fuels despite the promises made at COP 26), record levels of public debt (despite the tricks of some central banks; ours has exhausted its reserves and can do little for consumers), and the aging global population.
Moshe Lavi, whose relatives have been taken hostage by Hamas, recently spoke to a group of New York Times journalists about his family’s ordeal. His anger was palpable as he recounted people’s disbelief that Hamas committed atrocities when attacking Israel. Lavi was particularly puzzled by the semantics debate over whether people were beheaded or their heads simply fell off, or even if there were hostages in Gaza at all.
Recently, there’s been a controversy over whether Hamas beheaded babies – a claim that President Biden repeated before the White House walked it back. Regardless, given that Hamas has murdered children and taken others hostage, does it really matter if they didn’t also behead them?
Some skepticism may stem from antisemitism, but that’s not the only factor. One reason for doubt is the suspicion that false or exaggerated claims are used as a rationale for war, with the Iraq war being a prime example. A former permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations even cited U.S. actions post-9/11 as a model for how Israel should respond to Hamas’s atrocities. However, if the U.S. response to 9/11 is a model, it should be a model of what not to do, like Biden diplomatically put it to Netanyahu.
The U.S. received global sympathy after 9/11, but instead of using this to isolate extremists, the U.S. waged a reckless war in Iraq based on falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of the U.S. lies, the occupation fiasco, and the ensuing violence have deeply damaged the U.S. and its allies’ standing. The devastating aftermath of the Iraq war still lingers in the Middle East today, as Israeli soldiers are invading Gaza in their laborious attempt to decimate Hamas.
The question “But why war?”, raised by philosopher Dr Frederic Gros, is a fundamental yet seemingly naive inquiry, reflecting philosophy’s role in grappling with monumental childhood questions that adults often avoid. Historians traditionally explore the causes, roots, explanatory factors, and motivations behind wars, while philosophers tackle the essence of war, asking “what is war?”
In the “Leviathan,” Hobbes outlines three primary passions that fuel violence and war: greed, fear, and glory. Greed involves a desire for possessions and the envy and jealousy that arise when others possess what one lacks. Fear stems from the need for security and the anticipation of aggression from others, while glory encompasses the quest for recognition and a desire to prove one’s superiority.
However, human passions alone do not fully explain war. As Rousseau posits, war is a relation between states, not individuals. Wars are often fueled by a state’s desire for conquest and resources, fears of neighboring military threats, and the symbolic benefits of victory. Wars also give states consistency, defining their political identity and values.
Moreover, anger, as defined by Aristotle, is another passion that can generate conflict and war. This anger arises from perceived injustices and a desire for revenge. This introduces two crucial dimensions to the understanding of war: justice and history. The lack of a supranational structure to judge states results in war being a “normal” means of settling disputes between sovereign entities. Wars can be seen as substituting the unfeasible institution of a trial with the establishment of a balance of power to determine which side is “right.” This classical conception, however, is increasingly rejected as the destructive nature of modern wars is akin to indiscriminate massacres.
Anger also ties into historical causes of war, with wars serving as a means of avenging past humiliations and rewriting history. The 21st century’s fading belief in progress and looming catastrophic threats have led to new wars that are not fought for history, but against it, in a desperate effort to reverse and amend past wrongs. Ultimately, sad passions such as greed, fear, and vanity continue to foment wars.
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